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Free our municipalities!

Posted on March 16, 2017
Written by Todd Latham

Unprecedented shock and awe stories keep on coming from south of the border. My wife and I watch, follow, discuss (and often get angry about) the same topics as you. Every day our newsfeeds are filled with more head-shaking headlines. Originally this column was going to meme the new administration, take some informed guesses about U.S. infrastructure plans, and try to crystal ball the Canadian impact, but this is a strange story which continues to unfold so we’ll wait for more ‘alternative facts’ before we write that one.

Instead, I’d like to give a big thank you and show of support to the 3,600 municipalities across Canada. I want to share appreciation for the herculean efforts that mayors, councillors, and public works leaders often face to balance constrained budgets, maintain levels of service and utility coordination for a growing population, respond to carbon and climate, and maintain asset management plans all while continuing to move people, fluids, and goods within a defined area with limited resources and very little power or revenue levers to do much about it.

It’s time to update the constitutional relationship between municipalities and the provinces. The arrangement of municipalities being ‘creatures of the province’ dates back to the Constitution Act of 1867. There is no better time than our 150th Anniversary to revisit that document and acknowledge that our global cities and large municipalities have grown up and should now be given more freedom to decide their futures without higher order 
political interference.

The cycle of municipal applications, proposals, and begging/lobbying provincial or federal governments for project funding and approval and then politicizing the process and outcome is really tiresome. Despite the fact that municipalities own, manage, and maintain almost 60 per cent of the public infrastructure in their communities, they receive almost no direct benefit.

City of Toronto Mayor John Tory said recently he is “tired of being treated like a little boy in short pants” in response to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s support, and then rejection, of road tolls within the City of Toronto. Gas tax money was promised to make amends, but the kneecaps still sting. Canadian provinces need to take a less paternalistic view of their municipal ‘creatures’ and consider a kinder, peer-to-peer approach. Yes, higher orders of government need to set provincial and national policy, priorities and standards for infrastructure, but they should shift the tax revenues so as to leave the majority of revenue generation and capital decision making with local governments. Provinces should define the outcomes needed, provide the tools required to get it done and since then get the hell out of the way.

Here’s a few ways to free municipalities and get help them get the funding they require:

•          Raise the gas tax—a lot.

•          Give municipalities one cent of GST—a ten-year old idea with lasting merit.

•          Let municipalities do new things, their own way—with legislated powers.

I’m a parent of two teenage daughters, so I get it—you don’t want grown-up, newly-empowered, and cash infused municipalities to make mistakes. So instead of telling them what they can or can’t buy with their allowance, the provinces, like all parents, have to eventually let them fly the nest and make their own decisions—within the family tree.

Todd Latham is the founder of ReNew Canada and first championed expanded municipal powers in the Nov./Dec. 2007 issue.

The preceding article originally appeared as the Closing Shot in the March/April 2017 edition of ReNew Canada.

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